Which comes first – the chicken or the egg?

Which comes first – the chicken or the egg? If you solve that puzzle, then you can solve the next riddle: Which comes first, necessary infrastructure or the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service?
Whenever a sales pitch is presented telling me I am getting a top quality product for a bargain basement price, my inner voice says “yeah, right” and my Spidey senses start tingling. My inner voice was screaming and my body tingling when Alan Wallace, the director of planning and development for Saskatoon, said the estimated cost of the proposed rapid transit plan is between $44.2 and $66.3 million. And a plus or minus factor of $22.1 million was disconcerting, especially when you consider the city’s less than stellar record of bringing projects in on time and on budget.
However, to fully implement the plan over the upcoming years, the city will have to build another bridge connecting the east side of the river to 33rd Street. How can this possibly happen with a budget capped at $66.3 million?
The short answer is it can’t. The bridges and necessary railway underpasses and roadway infrastructure are not included in this price. Those costs will be included in the $1.4 billion infrastructure spending planned over the next few decades. (Reminder to self: $1 billion is 1,000 million dollars, which is a hefty expenditure for any mid-sized city to bear, keeping in mind that this is only one budget line.)
So why play with numbers? Why not give a report saying how much the total package will cost, inclusive of infrastructure, and say this is what we will spend over the next three decades to build a good, reliable, affordable public transit system, be it bus or train? Why try selling us a measly $66 million plan by comparing it to other cities like Winnipeg, London or Calgary, cities that spent in excess of $500 million for rapid public transit, when if this plan proceeds we will be spending an equivalent amount over the coming decades? Is it the snowball theory, that being when Council comes back and says, “we have already spent $66 million and we can’t quit now” when justifying squeezing us for the balance needed to complete the project? Whatever happened to that old adage “honesty is the best policy?”
Jarrett Walker, a purported expert in the field of public transportation, has already pointed to the fact that although curbside lanes may be cheaper, they are also slower and less reliable. In debate, the most lucid comment is attributed to Councillor Darren Hill when he questioned whether the City was being short-sighted by opting for the cheaper curbside option today with less economic benefit overall in the future.
Walker also points out that higher bus ridership and total city coverage contradict each other. That prompted transit manager Jim McDonald to add that the system’s long-term plan is to decrease service coverage and increase frequency, which in turn will supposedly increase ridership. That prompted Councillor Randy Donauer to express concern for walking distances to BRT stops for riders, especially in light of our harsh winters (and especially for those citizens with mobility issues.) Walker responded that weather is not generally used as a factor in establishing rapid transit stops. It should be remembered that Walker is from Oregon where the weather rarely dips below zero and snowfall is infrequent.
McDonald says transit will experiment this summer by running buses every five minutes along Eighth Street but without using dedicated lanes. I am bewildered as to how this will work given that buses will experience the same traffic problems private vehicles currently do. Envision bumper-to-bumper buses waiting to get back into moving traffic when pulling away from a transit stop. Add to the fray cyclists leisurely pedalling down the middle of road. If the City wants to pilot this system, then use dedicated lanes and give the public a taste of how this BRT really works. (Then again, maybe this is all part of Wallace’s Eighth Street redesign project presented a while back.)
Councillors Darren Hill and Pat Lorje are opposed to the proposed 33rd Street bridge. (Both have ward boundaries abutting 33rd Street.) Hill has called it the “over my dead body” bridge. Let’s anticipate a state funeral for Hill. Lorje is adamantly opposed to a 33rd Street bridge, but if there is to be a bridge it should be a walking/cycling only. I’m scratching my head trying to figure out how this fits into the BRT plan. Councillor Troy Davies, whose ward also touches on 33rd Street, points out that the City has spent years trying to divert traffic away from this east-west roadway and the proposed bridge would defeat that effort. So many concerns, so few answers.
What I don’t get is why Council promotes a sustainable, walkable, high-density city core, phasing out a reliance on vehicular traffic city-wide in favour of public transportation, and at the same time spends hundreds of millions of dollars on bridges and roadway infrastructure for the driving convenience of the ever-expanding suburbs. (More head scratching – maybe I have dandruff!)
Without a doubt, every city can benefit from a good, reliable, efficient and affordable public transportation system and Council should be commended for forward planning. I have used good public transit systems in major cities and in each instance they have been centre lane systems. These cities have featured park-and-ride parking lots, as well as small commuter buses that link BRT patrons to their neighborhoods. I’m not convinced this proposed plan will get us to that end result. I am also not convinced that a City our size can carry the full financial burden of this plan if the anticipated population growth is stunted. Before Council starts spending hundreds of millions of dollars, I’d like to see the whole picture rather than a sketch.
Whatever happens, transit employees will have to be on side to make this plan work. I can’t see a lot of co-operation coming from those employees given the four-year stalemate on contract negotiations and the animosity between the union and management arising from illegal lockout.